Boxing Day Walk

Well it’s a tradition to go for a walk on Boxing Day but as I had totted up about thirty miles over the last two days, I had planned a visit today to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which is less than ten minutes from the hotel. I set off around nine in time to take breakfast on the way and arrive at opening time at 10 when I hoped it would be less busy than later in the day. The streets were totally different today – still plenty of Chinese tourists – but lots of Portuguese people grabbing a bite before going to the office, workers in hard hats everywhere, cranes swinging overhead – like most major cities, Lisbon will be lovely when it’s finished. With a fresh orange juice, a cinnamon croissant and the obligatory pastel de nata inside me I arrived at the foundation and followed signs through a large, very dark and leafy park to the main entrance.

I knew from earlier emails that I’d get in for half price as an senior and happily parted with my 7 euros. As I walked out just over four hours later it felt like good value.

Gulbenkian made most of his money from oil in Iran and the Gulf and as well as being an avid collector of ancient and modern art and artefacts also instituted a series of cultural and educational programmes. There are two main areas: The Founder’s Collection and The Modern Collection at opposite sides of the park. I started in the antiquities building with a sense that I was back in the Getty Mansion in LA, surrounded by a similar array of amazing pieces from ancient Egypt – how does glass survive 24 centuries? – encompassing pottery and jewellery as well. I was struck by the nautical theme of the last few days with this bronze from 500 BCE and also by the clarity and spaciousness of the galleries. I also fell for the Egyptian cat and her kittens.

I suspect that even on busy days you would be able to move around and read the captions without too much of a struggle. It was also a pleasing feature to catch glimpses of the garden through the large windows. The exterior is a bit brutalist for my taste but you forget all that concrete once you are in these intriguing galleries.

There’s a progression though Greek, Roman and a lot of Islamic art given the Gulf connection – lovely tiles and carpets and illustrated manuscripts. I ambled happily through the rooms until arriving at the French collection – all that overgilded, overblown Versailles furniture – not for me! But then the big surprise which proved I did a bit of reading but not enough, but then of course it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Gulbenkian also had an eye, or good advisers, for French, Italian, Dutch and English painters and OK Singer Sargent was American and his lovely Ladies Sleeping in a Punt under Willows is here. I positively wallowed in some excellent Corot landscapes, Guardi’s views of Venice which I have always slightly preferred to Canaletto, a brooding Rembrandt Old Man, a wonderful ahead-of-its-time Durer duck.

I was also taken by the Edo period Bento box with its flowery lacquer. Gainsborough and Lawrence portraits and two magnificent Turners, Monet, Manet and Degas completed the feast. Happy morning!

In the temporary exhibition space was a display of sculpture from Rodin’s time in Paris including one of the Burghers Of Calais. It was nicely arranged with section on standing poses, non-posed naturalistic work, group sculpture and nursing mothers. I then took myself across the park to the Modern building passing on the way a splendid amphitheatre at which concerts take place with a lake in the background. Should I ever be here for a performance I’ll bring a cushion as the concrete seats looked rather hard. Kenwood music by the Lake without the stately home.

The modern collection is mostly of Portuguese sculpture, painting and installations one of which really caught my eye and ear. There are 34 boom boxes forming the word NO while playing the spoken word YES in as many different tones.

Otherwise there were some interesting pieces and it’s odd isn’t it how you get drawn to particular items. I approached one thinking that’s good to find it was by Jim Dine and to another that proved a Rachel Whiteread, Maybe the old adage is true ‘Class will out’.

In suddenly realised it was after two o’clock and I needed to find somewhere to watch Watford v Chelsea so rushed back to the hotel only to look at my calendar and realise that it’s a 19:30 kick off. On my way I did pass a sports bar so I should be OK. My other afternoon disaster was to attempt to rent a car. I had always thought it would be a good idea to get out to Sintra and back via the coast at Cascais and Estoril. There was a conveniently close Europcar who could rent me a VW Polo or equivalent. The clerk then said: “I’d better tell you the price before we do the paperwork.” Doesn’t augur well. 210 euros for a one-day hire. The Raggett pauper reared again – I had a car in Spain for ten days in the summer for less than that. So if the rail strike permits (60-odd % running according to the news) I’ll go by train tomorrow. Then back to the hotel to blog and be amazed by the day’s Premier League earlier results – How many goals? – and prepare to pop off to the sports bar for 19:30.

The sports bar was part of a hotel and had a few scarves and shirts (Benfica, Sporting, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United) I didn’t bring mine with me or they’d have had a Watford one to add. What they did have was the game on TV and an IPA which truly sprung (or Springed) off the shelf:and at 6.5% it might well have had even me doing karaoke. As it was the few others in the bar were amused but not disturbed but my oohs and aahs and scream of delight at the equaliser. Their penalty was never in much doubt but the Portuguese commentators were adamant ours was a nailed on penalty on Deleofeu. They showed it in close up and from five angles about five times and were most agitated on our behalf. The bar had wings, nachos, burgers and other suitable sports bar fare so I consumed a modest supper during the second half. I’m not sure whether it was anger at the ref or the food but I had a very disturbed night and was actually quite glad I wasn’t going to be driving first thing in the morning.

Boas Festas, Bon Natal

After the quickest taxi journey to Stansted ever, I breezed through security and went to the Escape Lounge for a hearty breakfast and a thorough read of the Observer. After a leisurely hour I made my way to the gate to find that the Priority Boarding queue is twice as long as the non-Priority. That’s because Ryanair make you buy Priority is you want to take a cabin wheelie case on board. I didn’t want to check baggage for just a week away so I joined the end of the line and waited, and waited. The incoming flight was delayed and so boarding for us was delayed. Standing in the airbridge to the stairs that would take us to the plane – how much extra does it cost in airport fees to push the bridge to the door and avoid all that up and down with luggage that could be wheeled not carried? – a fellow traveller spotted my Watford FC lapel badge and offered, pointing at my chest, “Good result for you yesterday!” “Indeed” I replied “and in all honesty I didn’t expect it. West Ham have been on a great run and we’ve been playing well but not getting the results.” It transpired that he is a Man United fan and would have been in Cardiff but for the lack of trains to get him back to ensure catching this flight today. We chatted a little more about the beautiful game, managers and player commitment and then they actually put us on board but rows apart so the conversation ended there. I’ve always said that if someone finds that you are a football fan you’ll never be short of a conversation – sometimes enjoyable, sometimes rather boring. This could have gone on happily for the entire flight I suspect.

So having taken a cab to the airport, gone in a posh lounge, paid for priority boarding, when I get to Lisbon I decide to take the pauper’s option to get to the hotel. This involved walking a very short distance to the Metro station, buying a rechargeable Via Viagem card and taking the Red Line (actually called Linea Vermelha which struck a chord as one of the pieces in my Japan book is about Vermillion) to Saldanha which looked the nearest station on the map. It wasn’t as I learnt after finally making it through a maze of hilly streets to be told I should have gone to the end of the line at Sao Sebastiao which is five minutes closer. Also Lisbon’s streets are paved with annoying small squares of stone which wreak havoc on the wheels of your suitcase.

I checked in to a surprisingly large room and went for a quick orientation ramble around the neighbourhood, finding the Blue Line station for tomorrow’s outing and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for Boxing Day. Back at the hotel for a beer (two actually as it was happy hour and they twisted my arm) I caught the end of Everton going down 2-6 to Spurs and then watched as local side Benfica put in 6 again to Braga’s 2. How often do you witness two 6-2 score lines on the same day?

It was Sunday night and the restaurant options were limited but the suggestion of Miguel at reception that I walk to the other end of the street (not very long) to Colina was a great choice. It’s a neighbourhood locale filled with families, some of whom I followed down the road from church, with a buzzing atmosphere and very tasty food.

I had a fish soup with four huge prawns and then a speciality from the area of spiced pork with clams which went down well. Having recently discovered in the UK a Portuguese grape called Alicante Bouschet at my local Laithwaites, I asked if they had one and the best they could do was a blend with Cab Sauv. It slid down very nicely anyway. A brisk walk through a cool evening – down to 8 degrees – and the sleep of the traveller.

Spain from E to D

Saturday was the big drive day traversing Spain to the north of Madrid. I didn’t get to prepare brilliantly for it. I’d had a very good dinner on Friday in the parador, carrot (lovely word in Spanish zahanoria) and orange soup followed by oxtail in crispy filo parcels with grilled aubergine, courgettes and peppers. Having only eaten a breakfast croissant and some crisps with a beer all day I was peckish and this went down very nicely with a glass or two of Ramon Bilbao rioja. I went and illustrated the blog, posted it and began to feel a bit nauseous. Not common for me at all. It settled and I went to bed but couldn’t sleep for ages and just as I was drifting off a mosquito whined by. Lights on, magazine at the ready but I couldn’t spot it. Brain clicks on in my doziness – I packed jungle formula for down south but why not here too? So I spray myself liberally and pull a sheet over my head. Eventually I hear no more mozzie and drift off for what can only have been an hour before the people two rooms along from me decide it’s time to check out – who checks out at 4 am unless you’re in an airport hotel? They have noisy children, lots of luggage and take ages. Fitful dozing follows until deep sleep at I guess around 7 – not what’s needed with a long day’s drive ahead. So I spring awake at 8:15 in a panic and am out and on the road by 8:40 only a bit later than intended. Just for the record Tortosa to Zamora  by the non-toll route is 660 kilometres and I had wondered once or twice about the wisdom of doing it on my own.

E to D? Spain has two major rivers (well they might count the Quadalquivir in Andalusia too), the Ebro which flows east to the Mediterranean just downstream from Tortosa in the famous delta. The Duero flows west and becomes the Douro in Portugal before hitting the Atlantic – Zamora is the last major city on the Duero in Spain. I have once again selected the no toll road route – it’s also the shortest by 50 km. And it proved to be an oenological odyssey. It also gave me a theory about the colours of the Spanish flag – as they used to say on Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne: “The answer lies in the soil”. Few of you will recall these but they were very funny radio shows. The soil is either pale golden yellow or deep red throughout my journey today. The wine route bit? I started in the denomination Terra Alta which includes yesterday’s winery where, as in Penedes the day before, the vines are showing lots of green leaf. As I cross from Catalunya into Aragon we enter Cariñena and on into Calatayud. Here there are a few shoots but the fields are mostly low black vines. Much of the rest of Aragon seems devoted to grain production with fields displaying 30 cm shoots in the most wonderful variety of greens. Whether they are different seeds or just different stages I didn’t stop to ask – in fact I didn’t stop apart for breakfast so no pictures for this section – I’ll have to paint them with words. These greens range from bright lime green like euphorbia flowers, through emerald and forest through to a dark steely bluish green. I really did want to stop because these greens against the newly ploughed bright red fields looked amazing and went on and on. Sadly, although there wasn’t much traffic on the N234, the sides have very steep run offs to discourage the practice of stopping. Then we popped into Castile y Leon and Ribera de Duero right next door to the Rioja where there was no hint of a shoot. We’d just gone through a pass at 1060 km above sea level so even spring is quite chilly up here. One day I will go to Peñafiel the heart of Ribera de Deuro which has a massive castle and loads of great looking bodegas dotted beside the excellent CL116 – a truly great drive – must have been made by the Romans. There are a few stretches of road which are designated A11 – Autovia del Duero but lots of  it has been started and looks like the money ran out. There are a lot of unfinished projects of all kinds that reflect the poor state of Spain’s economy but the ones the do finish are very impressive. Once into Valladolid province it’s all Rueda where the verdejo grapes produce their own fine wines and are shipped next door to make white riojas. Then once we cross into Zamora province it’s Toro made from its eponymous grape the vines of which are showing small shoots. Zamora of course also has its own DOC but I’m not sure I’ve tried it – maybe it would be rude not to.

I make it to the parador in time to set up the computer and listen to Watford at Leicester on Hornets Player but I have a premonition and the plethora of cafés in the sunny Plaza Mayor with the promise of a beer win out. I did keep an eye on the progress and was pleased to hear that the crowd were chanting Quique Sanchez Flores – oh that they would bring him back. Anyone but Mazzari next season please – no I don’t mean that. There’s a long list of managers we don’t want. 3-0 again conceding in extra time. Not good enough. IMG_2409

By the way this parador is not a castle but the palace of the Dukes of Alba and Aliste – quite impressive though.

IMG_2408There’s a massive wedding on today so the normally elegant courtyard has an inflatable gonk bouncy castle. Well it keeps the kids out of the bar! Fortunately our favourite resident is still in place and I might take him for a ride around the ramparts tomorrow.

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Zamora is a beautiful Romanesque town with the largest concentration of churches in that style in Europe. 24 of them all built in the 12th and 13th centuries – so that’s tomorrow’s photo blog. It’s due to be 27° so it might be shorts and sandals and a gentle walk about. Or inside several of them for a cool moment.

IMG_7794Right next to the parador is the Teatro Ramos Carrion which was a ruined hulk last time we were here. It’s been restored, had a modern extension added and  created a new square with views over the Duero. It reopened to the public last year. There’s also another theme of these blogs that followed me to Zamora – the modernisme (oops that’s Catalan – modernismo) trail.

And given I ventured into hydrology on the Ebro in the last blog it’s worth noting that the Duero in Zamora also has a diagonal diverting weir to regulate the flow which you can spot along with the ruins of the first bridge dating from Roman times.

And now we’re out west another fascination for me is storks’ nests. They seem to like church towers in this shape (1) and it’s not often you get above one (2) at feeding time. This one (3) was just around the corner but they had to make do with the lower slopes of this glossy spire (4).

Zamora has one restaurant with a Michelin star and Dee and I dined here the last time we were here together celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. Guess where I’m off to tonight!

Anniversary blog and the day that history was rewritten

41 sushi pink  Can it really be 

          a whole year since we boarded

          B A 0 0 5?

I started writing this on 9 April the anniversary of our departure on the trip to Japan last year which has been described in this blog. 
However life, work and extraneous factors intervened. It's now July 3 and we're in Boston, MA about which more a little later.

9 April 2013 was indeed the day we flew from Heathrow for our eventful, amazing and never-to-be-forgotten trip to Japan. How we wish we were going again but the exigencies of budget and work will keep us here this year. My long absence from the blog has been due to a number of circumstances including  limited social life and lots of writing for others rather than me or you.

However with spring in the air at last after the direst start to any year – ultra low return from our solar panels prove how grey it has been – it feels like time to take up my pen again. And then I got another urgent job for which I had to complete the first part of this week. The year has been so strange we’ve hardly been to any Watford matches relying instead on our friend Fran’s excellent blogs to keep us up to date with our team’s progress. No playoff excitement this year but some promising developments.

We did manage to go to our away game in Bournemouth back in January when we were excited by the prospect of the Japanese exhibits in the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. It’s a lovely eclectic collection assembled by one of the last great entrepreneur-travellers who gathered object that took his and his wife’s fancy from wherever the went – mostly in the Far East. The Japanese room had hundreds of objects but contained behind a perspex corridor along which you could inch your way and peer form side to side. Not ideal but with some glimpses of very interesting artefacts and scrolls.

Our taste for things Japanese was also fuelled by the mention of a Japanese garden on Margaret Island in Budapest where we went for a three night break on a very good deal from Groupon. The garden itself was a disappointment but not so Budapest although we did find cherry blossom. After an unpromising start with the first sign we saw emerging from the airport being a Tesco hypermarket,

Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts
Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts

Budapest proved to be a delightful place to spend a few days. We made a concert with the Hilliard ensemble still in good voice all those years after their chart appearance with Jan Garbarek’s saxophone accompaniment in the incredible Vigado Concert Hall which re-opened two days before we arrived. It’s all gilt and marble and pillars and a total contrast to the Erkel theatre where we caught an excellent ballet programme the next night. Built as the People’s Opera during the communist era its clean lines and lack of adornment made it a very pleasant place to watch great performances of three Jiri Kylian works.

The highspot was a visit to the Szechenyi Baths a massive complex of thermal baths where we sat in a grand open air pool with water temperatures of 35 degrees and the air at 24 – fabulous.

Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths
Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths
By the Chain Bridge
By the Chain Bridge

Architectural and culinary treasures abound and it’s definitely on the list for a return visit. Any of you who watch Drama on ITV sponsored by Viking River Cruises have seen the spotlit Chain Bridge, Buda Castle and Parliament Building modelled on the HP in London but with even more filigree.

Parliament from bus

We’ve been to more discussions and book launches at the Japan Foundation, entered a competition to win flights to Japan at the Japan Centre and discovered the joys – shared by grandchildren – of curry flavoured rice crackers.

Dee in the Garsington Garden
Dee in the Garsington Garden

I’d heard of an opera in a country house in Oxfordshire some years ago but when a friend of ours Susanna told us she was its musical director we just had to go. Garsington Opera is very much Glyndebourne for the northern home counties but more bohemian in approach and audience. It’s now based on the Getty family’s Wormsley Estate just off the M40 past High Wycombe. The estate is also home to a fabulous cricket oval on which England women beat Australia last year in the first match of the Ashes. The extensive grounds are lined with picnic spots and restaurant marquees bringing a medieval feel to the whole thing. We were blessed with a fine day although it did get a bit breezy so we were glad we’d opted for in-marquee dining at the interval.The opera takes place in a glass pavilion which makes for a unique viewing experience in that performances start in broad daylight and then it gradually gets darker as the evening progresses. We saw Fidelio and in a great piece of theatre the released prisoners in Act 1 actually walk straight out of the auditorium and lounge about in the garden outside. Susanna was able to join us for dinner after warming up the chorus at the start of the interval so we had a great opportunity to catch up with her.

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Mike by the cricket ground
The Opera Pavilion
The Opera Pavilion
Field of feasting tents
Field of feasting tents

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work for a Dutch publishing agency so took a day trip to Utrecht to meet them and an end-client. I flew from Southend airport which I scarcely knew existed but which was obviously very popular with a certain set. My thinking that there would be nobody there and I’d whizz through security after the hour’s drive from home was abruptly punctured by the sight of a bride and a retinue of bridesmaids; eight men in tiger onesies and a gaggle of guys with cork-trimmed hats. Then a look at the departure board for the three morning flights – Amsterdam, Krakow and Mallorca – and I knew I was in the stag and hen departure capital of Essex.

The flight was quick and the train connection from Schipol to Utrecht couldn’t have been easier. Clean, smooth and on time, I thought I was back in Japan. I had a few moments to stroll with my agency contact through the streets of Utrecht which is a cobbled, canal-threaded city with a vibrant street life. Tekst 2000 enjoy canalside offices in a vaulted cellar with a long hot desk for their colleagues and people like me. We went off to visit the client in Culemborg via a chain ferry so it was a day of just about every mode of transport.

20 years ago I was derided by newly made US friends for flying back to the UK on July 4 after my preliminary recce visit for what was to become Direct English. “Don’t you know we have the best fireworks show in the world on July 4?” Oops. So deciding to celebrate the Fourth of July properly this year we arrived in Boston as planned only to find that the firework display has been moved to July 3 to avoid being washed out by Hurricane Arthur. So history is rewritten and the War of Independence ended a day early – at least this year in Boston.

More about the trip to follow.

Hong Kong stopover

32 sushi pink After a bad day                                  

              can we find tranquillity                                  

              out in brash Hong Kong?

Sorry for the hiatus any anxious readers but family fun in Hong Kong,
travelling back to London and going straight back to work have interrupted
the blogging process. This one will describe the four days we spent in 
Hong Kong and then there will be occasional posts and new pages with 
extra photographs and details of some of the highlights of the trip.

So after a Thursday to forget (except for home cooked dinner by Tom) we wake up at their amazing apartment on the 27 th floor with views to the harbour on one side and over the whole of the Happy Valley race course and sports area from the living room. I was impressed by Hong Kong thirty years ago. Now most of the buildings I saw have been demolished and replaced by even taller ones. It is  a truly phenomenal city in the sky. If you’ve ever played SimCity you’ve been  to Hong Kong! We spent the morning exploring Central – walking through the clammy streets, up the huge travelator that swoops up to the Mid Levels and then through the air conditioned malls and walkways that enable you to survive in the city. 27 degrees and 97% humidity make air conditioning not a luxury but a necessity. And by careful planning you can go most places in comfort. Tom, now a HK veteran of two years has it all sussed so we move through the city cool, calm and collected. We then make our way back to Causeway Bay to see a Hong Kong institution – the Noonday Gun. This is a tradition carried out since the 1860s when Jardines, one of the major Hong Kong trading companies was ordered by a British naval officer to fire a one gun salute at noon every day as a punishment for insulting the navy by saluting a civilian.

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Synchronizing watches                                                      and bang!                                               

We arrived and took up our positions, watched the gunners carefully check their watches and then jumped like mad when a very loud report and a big puff of smoke issued forth. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still a real shock. We then walked round to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club one of the most sought after memberships in the territory. We are very lucky in that Paul Dalton, a good friend of Tom and Caroline, whom I had met in London, had invited us for a relaxing elegant lunch. Feeling very privileged, we enjoy fabulous views of Victoria Harbour and partake of food from an interestingly mixed buffet and menu which combine British colonial favourites with local specialities. Lunch was unhurried, conversation flowed and ranged over many issues and the whole was presided over with graceful charm by Paul. As we left, the famous Hong Kong rain came down, hard and vertical and, as elsewhere in the world, dissolved all trace of taxis from the streets. Eventually one parted the curtain and took us away for a little light sightseeing and then back to the apartment for a break which included watching the most incredible clouds pour down over Happy Valley.

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We then changed for the evening which was at an equally interesting venue – the China Club. It appears not to have a working website but has an intro and picture in its sister club’s site for Singapore. Set in the former headquarters building of the Bank of China it’s a retro eye-opener with stair and landing walls lined with modern art from owner Sir David Tang’s collection – an eclectic taste is displayed. There’s a roof terrace with fabulous views over night time Hong Kong and a vast dining room with superb food and a series of fascinating shows – a torch singer who whispers jazz classics, not always quite in tune but certainly the centre of attention. She is followed by two guys – one doing amazing things pouring tea from a very long teapot into cups that he’s juggling while contorting his body; the other makes fine noodles from a massive slab of dough by repeated slapping and pulling. Amazing. IMG_3388  Chanteuse China Club Teapot man China Club   Noodleman China Club  IMG_3418

Apart from the club’s entertainment, a highlight was the chance to catch up with Steve and Michelle Resco. Dee and I had worked closely with Steve in helping to establish the Watford Supporters’ Trust ten years ago. It was Steve who engineered our viewing of Watford v Leeds in Roppongi the week before and it was great to catch up with lives lived all over the place since we last spent time together. Home for a nightcap and a lengthy sleep. Saturday took us for a wander through the wet markets of Causeway Bay an easy walk down from the apartment. Eyeballs were stretched by the sheer volume of food of every kind being chopped, skinned, sliced and in some cases slaughtered right there on the street. One aspect of Hong Kong eating became abundantly clear – whatever you selected it was amazingly fresh – fish still flopping not frozen – one even jumped off the slab and was retrieved by an unfazed Chinese senior citizen.   IMG_3431  IMG_3445

We walked on to meet up with Caroline who had to go to work in the morning but was able to join us for a splendid lunch at one of their favourite restaurants Din Tai Fung. Of Taiwanese origin, it serves a mixture of dim sum style dumplings, buns and wan ton, excellent dan dan noodles, cucumber with chilli and garlic and the best ever egg fried rice as Tom had promised. I had loved Hong Kong’s trams thirty years ago so we took a ride along to the Star Ferry.

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Crossing the harbour on the ferry is an essential part of any visit to Hong Kong and once again it didn’t disappoint. We made the journey across to Kowloon, passing the large inflatable Rubber Duck  – Florentijn Hoffman’s installation which has mysteriously deflated since our visit – not guilty m’lud. We then make our way to the ICC Tower and go up to the observation deck. Despite a certain murkiness in the distance the views are fabulous and we were reminded that at 484 metres high it’s the tallest building in Hong Kong and the fifth tallest in the world rather dwarfing London’s Shard at 309 metres. We also look down on one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world.

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On descending I caught the Airport Express out to Chep Lak Kok to collect my phone, miraculously delivered to Hong Kong from Tokyo through the combined efforts of Japan Rail’s Narita Express, China Eastern Airways and Jardine handling staff in Hong Kong. I sign for it, switch it on and, goodness it works. So I text Tom to tell him I’m homeward bound and he advises the subway and a brief walk when I make it back to Hong Kong island as the traffic is mad and they are not even home yet. The MTR – Hong Kong’s subway – seems very efficient during my brief encounter with it. The only problem as in Tokyo, was that you seem to have walked at least far enough to reach your final destination but you’ve just been travelling through a vast underground interchange. My next walk was a little warmer as I followed Tom’s excellent texted directions to get myself from Causeway Bay station back to the Leighton Hill apartment to be rewarded with a cold beer for my efforts. After a brief rest and a change we set off by taxi for another fabulous evening. Tom and Caroline won’t be able to be in the UK in July so very kindly took us for a joint birthday dinner at Spoon, Alain Ducasse’s Michelin starred restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel back in Kowloon. A brilliant tasting menu with matched wines proved a great choice as course after course arrived with delicious aromas and tastes. The whole occasion was enhanced by our prime window table from which we could watch the nightly Victoria Harbour Light Show. Produced by Hong Kong Tourism it was eagerly anticipated by the crowds below us on the waterfront. The light patterns on individual buildings and the lasers flying between them make it look as if the city is holding a conversation between the huge towers that line the harbour. What a fabulous birthday present!

Sunday meant an early rise to go to Deepwater Bay to support Tom and his dragon boat racing team The Seagods. Tom took up dragon boating soon after moving out two years ago and has international medals for his efforts. And what efforts they are! Watching twenty men and women striving to move this great boat through the water from a standing start shows raw energy at work at its best. And it pays off as the Seagods comfortably win their first race with the A boat. An hour later Tom again plays a part in bringing the B boat in as runner up in a further heat. The sight of the beach covered with team tents, paddlers and their supporters is colourful and constantly moving as teams make their way to and from the start and finish pontoon.

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Tom had made his apologies to the Seagods for only completing two races out of a possible five today in order to take us to explore the island further. We went to Stanley which feels much like Brighton, with narrow-laned markets, a promenade with pubs and restaurants and a pier which was reconstructed here from its original position in Central in 2006 along with the Murray House also originally built in Central in 1844 as Murray Barracks. They fit the landscape well and look as if they might always have been there.

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We had the opportunity to share a drink with Katie, Tom and Caroline’s friend, who had given us so much good advice for our trip which was great as we were able to thank her in person, not just by email, for her insights. Katie had to go off elsewhere and so couldn’t join us for lunch in Saigon, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the Murray Building. After lunch we wandered around the headland to the Tin Hau Temple commemorating the goddess of the sea. It’s cut into the rock and was obviously a popular pilgrimage destination. We then returned to the much larger Man Ho Temple on the edge of Stanley Plaza where Lamborghini’s 2013 Cow Parade has raised considerable sums for charity.

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After a great day out by the sea we decided on a simple dinner at home and a serious spell of packing for Dee and myself so we went back to Happy Valley taking in architect Frank Gehry’s first residential project in Asia Opus, a fabulous twisted tower that looks as if it has survived an earthquake. Its lines flow out of the steep hills that characterize Hong Kong island and for those wealthy enough to be inside must provide stunning views. After a trip to the butcher we then walk home through the middle of the Happy Valley racecourse which is busy with sports activity of all kinds. IMG_3681

IMG_3690It’s great to spend another evening at home with  Tom and Caroline not least because Tom managed to find a website streaming Sky Sports coverage of the second leg of Watford’s play off against Leicester. And what a match that was with what has been termed “the greatest comeback ever in the world of football” with its double penalty save and brilliant counter attack for the winning Watford goal. Having missed out on the end of the season at least we’ll get one more game this season – at Wembley. Come on You Orns!

I don’t know what it is with travel days but, as we retired early ahead of a six o’clock taxi departure for the airport, I confidently set the alarm on my newly recovered phone for 05:00. To our horror we are rudely awakened very soon after retiring. We get up, shower quietly and attend to final bits of packing. As I go to make a coffee I notice the kitchen clock blinking 04:20 at me. My phone was still on Tokyo time – an hour ahead of Hong Kong. Oops again. We set off as planned, are seen off by Tom and have excellent flights with Singapore Airlines back to Heathrow. The leg from Singapore to London was on the A380 double-decker plane about which Dee had worked on a documentary a few years back and had actually been in Toulouse for its maiden flight. The upper  deck is all business and first class and they wouldn’t even let us go up and peek but never mind. A pre-arranged taxi met us at the airport and whisked us home in time to see that our Wembley opponents will be Crystal Palace, retire and prepare for work the next day.

It has been a wonderful month and one we won’t forget with its food, friendship and fascination allied with our quest to find out more about Murakami’s Japan. I think the trip can be called a success. We’ve enjoyed sharing it and getting your reactions and comments.

Travel day – crew half rate, production carries on

26 sushi pink  What surprises and

           delights will we find as we

           return to Tokyo?

We have time for a brief look at downtown Asahikawa before taking the car back to the rental company at the airport. It’s pleasant enough with a long pedestrianised shopping street through the middle and another large mall underneath the station – best place to go today with temperatures still only 4 or 5 degrees and sleety drizzle starting. We did have an interesting encounter with a Buddhist monk who offered to show us round his temple – an offer we had to decline with a flight to catch. An uplifting moment – he had been to London a couple of years ago and reported that the people had been extremely friendly and that he found London a beautiful city.

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As we filled up with petrol just before the airport – at a selfo – the garage man came rushing out as I was about to get back into the car and presented me with two boxes of tissues. Although this was our last five minutes with a car it seemed churlish to decline so we left one for the next renters and brought one with us.I had limited expectations of Asahikawa Airport which were totally overturned after the quickest return of a rental car ever and transfer to the terminal. I guess it’s because of the skiing at Furano and other resorts around that Asahikawa is now an international airport with flights from Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei already. The terminal is a shiny glass building that reminded us of Cork where we went for Watford FC’s pre-season tour back in July. What a season it’s been! And what a finale tomorrow with playoffs assured but a chance of automatic promotion if we win against Leeds and Hull lose or draw with already promoted Cardiff. And we’ll be watching it in the Hobgoblin Roppongi.

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Check in was swift and slick with my credit card used for the booking printing boarding cards and baggage tags from bright yellow machines – an omen perhaps. We managed a light lunch in the departure area before getting on to the plane to our delight in bulkhead seats with added legroom. The one drawback was that I was sitting next to a trainee sumo wrestler so spent most of the flight leaning at a forty-five degree angle. While we were flying I took to musing about a question that had cropped up several times during our periods of driving. I’m sure someone knows the answer or has the time to Google it. The question:

Does Japan have the greatest number of kilometres of road enclosed in tunnels of any country in the world? Not the longest tunnel but the most stretches of road aggregated together that are in tunnels. It may apply to railway tracks too.

All the times we were driving on Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido we could scarcely go for fifteen minutes without going through a tunnel some of them 5 and 7 kilometres long. I’ll Google myself one day but if anyone knows the answer I’d be glad to have a comment with the answer.

The  last half hour of the 90 minute flight was excellent with great views of the Sendai area and the coast to the east of the capital with massive areas under rice paddies, glinting in the sun. Quickly out through domestic arrivals and onto the Narita Express again with its excellent LCD progress, weather and news reports – among the ads and sponsors’ messages – to Shinjuku. Old hands now at baggage wrangling we were soon at the taxi rank and asking for the hotel. What a laugh! A one minute taxi ride and there we were just round the corner from the station. However walking our cases through Friday rush-hour legs (or shins) could have been painful for the good people of Shinjuku.

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In my planning I’d pushed the boat out a bit with our last hotel as we are here for six nights. Not huge extravagance, you know, just £70 a night instead of the £40-50 we’d routinely been paying. Oh wow! A proper hotel – huge lobby, ten check-in clerks, four lifts, a restaurant and a bar. This was hotel number 15 and was the first with its own bar. We got to our room and decided that Dee deserved a G&T and me a malt whisky. However as the bar served a magnificent martini plans were changed while we had a planning meeting and marked up the many, many parts of Tokyo we need to visit in search of Murakami’s locations over the next last days in Japan.

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Then it was out to what looked like a local basement dive but actually produced a repast of brilliant lightly marinated aubergine (eggplant) slices, tuna, avocado and crunchy yam, pig’s cheek skewers and a subtle teriyaki pork dish. As Dee wrote at the time a veritable feast with again staff reaching for their phones to look up ingredients for us. There’s an app that gives the Latin names for plants and fish which has proved very helpful. Then back to the hotel for a nightcap and plans firmed up for tomorrow culminating in a trip to Roppongi to watch Watford v Leeds. Come on you ‘Orns!